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Don’t belittle the role of private schools

ht-view Updated: Feb 05, 2014 00:15 IST
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At about this time every year, parents of children who are about to enter the school system in Delhi have sleepless nights. This year too the situation will not be different because the Supreme Court on February 1 refused to stay the new criteria for nursery admissions ordered by Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung. In December, reviewing an earlier order regarding nursery admission in private unaided recognised schools in Delhi, Jung had relaxed the distance criteria for students from six kilometres to eight kilometres but did not review the management quota which was abolished by him in his December 18 guidelines.

The order took away the last vestiges of autonomy of schools regarding admissions. In a system with enough good schools, parents should be thinking more about their child’s first steps in education rather than panic about whether their child would actually get there or not. A point-based lottery might not be a bad idea in a shortage but this exercise tests the limits of the twin principles of admissions: equity and suitability.

In India, regulators treat private schools as supplemental to the main system of government schools even if they perform better or are more in demand. The Right to Education law says that 25% of private sector seats should be kept aside for children coming from the economically weaker sections to allow them the privileges of a superior education. This in itself is an acknowledgement of private schools’ contribution to education.

The positive contribution of these schools is not recognised by taking away their right to choose students. Such a system is even disrespectful of the rights of parents to choose a school for their child because it ends up creating a system that restricts their ability to apply to all schools.

The law restricts the catchment area of schools to eight kilometres. This does not work in a city that has excellent schools concentrated in a small area and a population spread over a very wide sprawl. If a parent wants to send her child to a school far away which offers the kind of education that suits them, why should they not be free to exercise that option? Why should a child be forced to attend a school that has a strong art faculty when her interest and talent is in sports just because it happens to be local?

In a system with a fair distribution of schools, or no buses, the distance criteria might make sense. Delhi has a fantastic network of school buses and that could enable children access the education of choice. Let parents decide whether the commute is too much when choosing schools. We don’t need the government to set these rules for us. Such divide could also increase realty prices near good school clusters.

As long as there is a scarcity of good-quality schooling, these formulae are merely an exercise in shuffling the deck-chairs. One replaces one set of children with another: the number of children left out remains the same.

In the interests of equity, it does not matter whether these children are rich or poor – denying a child good education will harm her anyway. The schools already had a set of guidelines on fair admissions that they were administering. If there was a problem with the implementation then those instances should have been called to account. The removal of autonomy seems hardly fair. Nor is it conducive to a constructive working relationship with the schools that nurture the next generation.

Meeta Sengupta is senior adviser, Centre for Civil Society
The views expressed by the author are personal